Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of History and Politics - Faculty of Arts


This thesis is, primarily, a feminist account of meaning and significance in working class households on the early twentieth century Sydney waterfront. Initially, the raison detre of the thesis was to redress the patent absence of women and their domestic labour in my earlier work on the history of the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia (WWF). However, in response to feminist epistemological arguments - about forces that determine historical absence and presence, and the symbolic nature of concepts of masculinity and femininity - the concerns of the thesis broadened. It now encompasses all members of waterfront households - men and children as well as women - and it also examines, to a lesser degree, hitherto neglected aspects of the history of mens waterfront work. A central proposition of the thesis is that history that awards significance from the perspective of public life (as histories of trade unions do) necessarily privileges masculine relationships (actual or symbolic). Such history generates presence and absence along lines that are often gendered. By contrast, history that seeks meaning and significance from the perspective of the household can scrutinise women, children and men with relative equality. Through this route the interactive and entwined experiences of gender, class and generations can be made more visible, and alternative accounts of meaning and significance can emerge. The thesis utilises a range of documentary and oral sources to support this proposition, but it also employs inference and deduction to argue its case. Through this method it draws attention to the contrast between the kinds of meaning and significance that emerge from a study of day-to-day life, and the meaning and significance that external constructs award. The subject matter of the thesis is organised into three areas: historical absence and presence; practical aspects of the day-to-day life of the household; and work of all kinds. The thesis demonstrates that processes affecting historical absence and presence occur for contemporary as well as historic reasons, and apply to men as well as to women. Biases in socially constructed records, which are blind to many women�s activities and disregard their domination of particular categories, allow the early twentieth century Sydney waterfront to be characterised as a masculine place. However, the same records reveal the widespread existence of categories of male waterfront work that challenge the wharf labourers contemporary hold on waterfront labour history. Household finances, housing and fertility highlight differences between lived life on the Sydney waterfront and ideological, and gendered, constructs that purport to account for women and mens behaviour. The breadwinner/dependent spouse dichotomy is demonstrably false for early twentieth century waterfront households; gendered use of waterfront housing did not accord with the ideology of its architecture; and atypically high fertility amongst waterfront women of the period contradicts both feminist and economistic arguments about the meaning of fertility limitation. Work of all kinds provides a lens for viewing the spousal, parental and filial relationships of the waterfront household. The economic purpose of some womens home-based work is demonstrably similar to men�s waged work, and aspects of their domestic work challenges notions of male power within the working class household. However, the meaning and significance of unpaid domestic work for the women who did it remains relatively obscure. Waterfront childrens paid and unpaid work was prompted by filial obligations to the household that entailed a lengthening of childhood, which contrasts with economistic constructions that perceive childhood in terms of the school/work divide. When the spectrum of men�s paid and unpaid work and work-based activity is analysed it bears a marked similarity to the pattern of waterfront womens work. Because waterfront men can be argued to have put the private relationships of the home ahead of their relationships with other men the meaning of their work is arguably similar to the meaning of womens work. The thesis concludes that when the private life of household is scrutinised an alternative account emerges that challenges the meaning and significance implied by historical accounts of public life. Women and men can be understood less as symbolic constructions than as real people for whom meaning and significance were similar. In this the thesis offers a feminist alternative to the masculinist and economistic approaches of institutional history.

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